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Middle Eastern Glass Beads:

A New Paradigm

Part 1


There may never have been an Old Paradigm. What came closest was calling every otherwise unidentified glass bead "Roman." This label was used even when the bead in question could not have been Roman, as for example those on the antiquities market from looted sites in West Africa.

Be assured, that whatever is on the east coast of Africa (and Berenike, Egypt doubtless shipped beads there), there has been nothing in West or Central Africa that can be ascribed to the Roman Empire ever found south of the Hoggar (Ahaggar) Mountains in the central Sahara in southern Algeria.1

But, these "Roman" beads are great. They are often quite beautiful and complex. They are colorful and technically accomplished. In the last (19th) century many new beads such as chevrons and Venetian millifiories were called "Roman." Such mistakes lingered on in the popular press until the mid 20th century. Researchers, however, had learned to recognize Venetian (though not yet Czech) products several decades earlier.

Anyway, just calling any interesting bead "Roman" is not really much of a paradigm. Rather, it was a problem. I nicknamed it MEG-P. Meg is not an old girlfriend, but Middle Eastern Glass (Beads) and the P stood for Problem.

Problems are meant to be solved. In early 1994 2, after having struggled with the thing over the holiday season, I announced the change of MEG-P as in Problem to MEG-P as in Project. I think what I said then speaks for itself. (Words in brown are additions).

      I call them keystone projects. They are exercises that don't necessarily yield anything that can be published right away, but they must be done in order to do other projects. They require a lot of work, time and energy. And because they don't immediately pay off and are so complex, my avoidance reaction goes into effect when I have to do one.

      Happily, another one is now complete. It is the (initial) working out of a chronology for glass beads produced in the Middle East. The period of time considered is long, about 1000 BC to AD 1500. Not every bead is included, only those of particular techniques or decoration that makes them highly distinctive.

      The problem is that in many cases these beads have been labeled "Roman " in the literature. But the Roman Empire only had control of this industry for a few centuries. Before the Romans, glass beads were made in this region and after them beads were made in Byzantine and Coptic territories, later to become Islamic regions. The products are widely spread.

      Some beads, indeed, seem to have had a very long life. Small red (and a few other colors especially dark blue) round segmented beads and cobalt blue folded bicones (as well as gold-glass beads) can be documented from about 300 BC to AD 1200 -- a 1500 year span.

      But are there differences among other beads that can help us tell them apart? This is essential for several current and future projects of the Center, including the Asian Maritime Bead Trade (née the Indian Ocean Bead Trade), the Arikamedu excavation and the Berenike excavation.

      And how does one do this project? First is the literature. It must meet two criteria: scientifically verified archaeological dates (which leaves out virtually all of the popular literature) and clear descriptions or illustrations of the beads (which leaves out most archaeological reports). To find both is not easy.

      To these I added data from the personal examination of beads from relevant sites. Once the data is gathered it must be collated, which is the phase being worked on at the moment.

Part 2

Mortimer Wheeler (1949: Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, Ball and Sons: London) has a chapter describing these finds from a royal grave. I am too lazy (it's the Internet's fault) to look up the pages. As far as I know, no more recent finds have been reported.

Slightly revised from "Middle Eastern Glass Beads" Margaretologist 7(1):11.

Middle Eastern Glass Beads: A New Paradigm

 is copyrighted © 1999 Peter Francis, Jr. Permission is hereby given to download a single copy either electronically or in print. Permission for multiple copies should be sought from the publisher here.

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